On Thursday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder had what might be their biggest win of the season. Taking on the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who had been riding a four-game win streak, the Thunder pulled out the upset.
Yet, none of that seemed to matter. All anyone wanted to talk about afterward was the highly anticipated return of Kevin Durant to Oklahoma City and what the fan reaction will be for him.
“Obviously, Kevin’s done a lot for Oklahoma City and our team when he was here, so it’s kind of up to them,” Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook said. “It doesn’t really matter to me one way or another. It’s a basketball game, and we’ve gotta go out and compete.”
Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. Central time at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. It is being broadcast live on ESPN/ABC, which has given the game a playoff style treatment.
But they are not the only ones. According to Thunder officials, the media credential list compares to that of recent Western Conference Finals.
Since the day the 2016-17 NBA schedule was released, this contest has been circled on almost every calendar through the league. That includes Durant, who knows the crowd reaction will be slightly different from the ones he got when he wore a Thunder uniform for eight seasons.
“As an opposing player, I know how fans are,” Durant told ESPN’s Marc Stein. “I know what’s important to them and their team. It’s way more important than just one player. But I have so many great memories there. It’s something that’s always going to be part of me until I die. I’m not going in there acting like I’m going to be praised. I know how it is.”
The Thunder are doing their best to down play the significance of the game. But even Nick Collison, who teamed with Durant for nine years, still remembers how he felt that July 4 day when Durant made his announcement that he would join the Warriors.
“I would just say disappointment,” Collison said. “We wanted to get our team back. We felt like we could win a championship. We had a lot of success here. So definitely disappointment.”
But once all the initial boos are over and the awkward interactions take place, a game is going to be played. Judging by the teams’ previous two meetings, the Warriors won’t be fazed by the story lines associated with the game.
Golden State won the first two games by an average margin of almost 24 points. But they were both played in Oakland.
The Thunder hope having the Warriors in Oklahoma City will be some sort of an advantage.
Another factor that could work toward Oklahoma City’s advantage is that the Warriors are playing the second half of a back-to-back games after making a stop in Memphis Friday night.
The Warriors had not beaten the Grizzlies this season before Friday’s victory. Led by Draymond Green’s unusual triple-double (12 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 steals, but just four points) and Klay Thompson’s 36 points, they rolled past Memphis.
The Thunder know they have to bring the same team effort they had in their over Cleveland into Saturday’s matchup if they want to ruin Durant’s homecoming.
“You have to be able to do it every night,” Collison said. “We had a good one last night. We have to turn the page and try to do it again tomorrow.”